The Emerald Key

August 16, 2018:

After patching up the metaphysical damage wrought upon Hell's Kitchen, John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara encounter Loki, the God of Mischief, intent on finishing some unfinished business…and starting a new one.

Hell's Kitchen - New York City

The crater that used to be Hell's Kitchen.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The damage wrought on Hell's Kitchen can't be understated - not just the location and the buildings therein, but also in the mystical, ephemeral spaces they inhabit.

But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel now - it has been a few weeks since Raven told Zatanna that there are several locations in the blast site where the veil has thinned enough that demons had started to crawl out and despite constant monitoring of the area, thankfully, the incident had not been repeated. The days following has seen certain members of the mystical community reinforcing the veil and amidst the lingering after-notes of blood, ash and blast in the decimated ten blocks, magic, too, now thickens the air around there.

As always, Zatanna Zatara can be found in the middle of magical devastation in the city; the last hour has her attempting to reinforce the last patch of the veil that has rendered thin, wisps of white-blue light leaving the tip of her obelisk once the spell has been knitted in place. Exhaustion and determination war over her pale mien but once that is finished, she exhales and pockets the stone apparatus she uses to keep the vast well of her magical potential in check. Inspecting the space before her, there's a glance towards her companion, always reliable whenever she needs a sharp, critical eye on her work. The years have seen her becoming less and less reliant on John Constantine, but some of her past deference - typical, between a student and teacher - remains.

Even if it's just checking over her work.

"I think that's the last of it," she says, slowly hunkering down against a tall piece of rubble. "Finally." Pale eyes slip over the ruins of Hell's Kitchen. "Even when we knew it wasn't going to be easy, it still took us this long to finish."

—-

It would be understandable if the months of labor involved in patching holes in the reality of Hell's Kitchen had left John looking haggard and weary. If the tragedy of it all had subdued him, put shadows beneath his eyes, trace evidence left behind by contact with reminders of the scale of that atrocity. And, true: he looks both haggard and weary, and there are shadows beneath his eyes.

That's just John, though. Always has been. The man has a life that consists almost entirely of tragedies daisy-chained together by bad decisions and last-minute solutions. He's not the least bit subdued: sharp blue eyes flick over the nothingness hiding the everything that Zatanna's just finished sewing together, and he sucks his teeth. "Like a finely embroidered patch job on a pair of sagging Manchester dungarees that have never seen the inside of a laundry." The words are rueful, dry, slightly grim.

Which isn't to say he's unaffected by what happened here — only that he's decided he won't be acknowledging that. To himself, or anyone else.

The more things change…

"That'll do for the revolving door, but it's going to be months before things settle down. Had a call from three blocks up yesterday. There's something stirred up out of the bloody underground by all of this metaphysical racket. Seems likely we're going to go from spackling to pest control."

—-

The universe is a tapestry. A large, tacky tapestry. Billions, trillions, countless threads, all woven together into a piece of art that, even at the best of times, looks 'barely coherent' or 'charmingly kitsch, sort of.' At worst, well…

When the threads on that kitschy tapestry start to strain, even a little, that's when things just start to get embarrassingly gauche.

For a case in point, one need only look at Hell's Kitchen, where two unsung heroes (??) work their hardest to stitch together the tacky metaphysical madness that this ruined pockmark of this tiny slice of neighborhood in an indifferent universe has become. Tired and weary and exhausted, they stem a tide that could go from bad to worse in a heartbeat if not for their unnoticed and unappreciated efforts.

Well.

"Now that is the nicest metaphysical band-aid on a cracking dam I have seen in -quite- some time."

Not entirely unnoticed.

"And believe you me, I certainly have seen a worrisome amount of them in my time."

The voice comes from above, on a patch of gutted rubble yet to be cleared. Familiar, perhaps, if not a voice Zatanna has heard in some months. And so enters FOUL REDEEMED LOKI, perched upon his throne sad testament of ruin, one leg crossed over the other and dressed in the most immaculate of black tailored suits and green tie — of course.

Looking quite somber for a quite somber event. Of course.

Which does not stop him from the least, from offering a cheerful, friendly wave. Familiar, because, after all, they've all already met — technically. "Hello, my bosom chums! Fancy running into you again here of all places — though I suppose, if there was to be anywhere we should meet, it'd probably have to be here. Tragically dour though the setting might be."

—-

"That's quite the analogy," Zatanna wonders, managing a smile towards John. "Personal experience? I didn't think you'd be able to touch anything with the word 'Manchester' on it without bursting into flames." Scrutinizing her work one more time, she pulls her fingers through her hair, falling a step next to the British magus.

Talk about something that has stirred up from the underground has her furrowing her brows at his direction, the two of them starting upon the long slog home. It would be an easy thing, a simple thing, to open a portal and return to John's Brooklyn flat, but the weather was warm and the end of summer is fast approaching. Some time outside would do them both some good.

It is this attempt to leave a place all hope has seemingly abandoned when they come across a figure clad in green, and since it has been a few months, Zatanna doesn't recognize Loki at first - not by voice, as time and stress tends to pull an intangible eraser over memories now and then, and not everyone can be blessed with a photographic memory - like Tim Drake or Jane Foster - but it is the face when she finally focuses on him that makes everything click, and pieces cascade into place. They all come rushing in - the encounter in the magical library underneath Studio 54, the gala in which she tangled with the Scarlet Witch.

"You!" she identifies, not-so-helpfully. Hands sliding into her pockets, she sighs - not out of exhaustion, this time, but at the anticipation that things will either take a turn for the strange, exasperating or complicated; perhaps all of the above. She wouldn't rule it out.

"It's been a while. How've you been?" She is cordial at least - it's rare to find Zatanna Zatara uncordial. She gestures between the two men. "John Constantine, this is Loki." Actual Loki; she certainly doesn't revisit the old and slightly embarrassing assumption she made that his parents were simply Norwegian with a liking for mythological names. It's not like it's unheard of!

—-

"Really? It's the 'Manchester' bit that made you think I wouldn't want anything to do with it? Not the 'never been inside a laundry' bit? What you must think of my standards," John drawls, words he's only investing a small portion of his attention into. He quips the way some people breathe: like it's all just an autonomic function of his existence.

A moment later, blandly, he adds: "I'm not saying you're wrong, mind…"

And then-

He stops when she does, attention slicing sidelong and up, to the place that a very well-dressed individual is tempting the odds, balanced on a bit of broken city that way. His hands go into his pockets, which is typical when he's not doing anything else with them.

Less typical is the way in which the link he has with Zatanna is suddenly plunged into the equivalent of an ice bath, as introductions are made — even as the corners of his mouth turn upward, a flint smile in place. "Right. Son of Odin, maker of mischief, all that. Heard you were hanging about, mate. Come to lend a hand putting Humpty Dumpster back together again? Or are you cheering the other team, this go'round?"

—-

A smile for a smile. A sigh for a sigh. Like he was reflecting both of their outward reactions in a mirror, the dubiously redeemed trickster smiles his hapless smile and sighs his exasperated sigh, eyes shutting within the burden of his weariness. How has he been?

"Oh, that's rather a long story, and one I don't quite feel has a proper ending quite yet. Suffice it to say, I recommend you never open your heart to distant relations if you can help it. Your sole reward is being hurled into an endless pool of embarrassment and chronoactive godblood."

Like he said.

It's a long story.

"Family, hm? They truly get your goat sometimes!"

They'll understand that one later.

As it stands, the God of Mischief pulls himself back up onto his feet, puddling ripples of green rolling from the soles of his shoes to keep his impossible footing on that precarious perch of plaster. "But, nevermind my woes! I'm more interested in how my partner-in-bibliophilic-crime is surviving." A friendly smile is offered up, as he turns bright green eyes Constantine's way. Son of Odin, he says. "When the mood strikes," is Loki's answer, effortlessly blithe. "Master Constantine. It's a pleasure, of course." Of course.

Come to lend a hand putting Humpty Dumpser back together again?

"Well, you know what they say," muses Loki, taking a look around him at the recovering devastation. "Not even forty doctors and forty wrights could truly put Humpty Dumpster to rights. I'd be more than happy to help, of course, but a band-aid is still a band-aid, isn't it? A wound so grievous is just bound to get worser yet, no matter how many king's horses or king's men you rally."

A second passes by. "Which reminds me. How is my band-aid holding up?"

—-

The flinty smile and the shot of arctic temperatures that suddenly fills the back of her brain has Zatanna watching Constantine's profile quietly before her attention falls on Loki once more. His spiel about family and goats has that small kernel of confusion on her features growing more visible, the longer the man talks.

"It sounds complicated," she offers. "Anyway, it's fine. I'm doing fine, as you can probably tell…" She doesn't have to gesture, or point with her eyes, the crater that used to be Hell's Kitchen surrounds them, devastation as far as the eye can see where they're situated. "…we've been a little busy."

He isn't wrong about their current magical stitchwork being a temporary measure of some kind. "Here's hoping the stitches will hold long enough for the wounds to close, anyway," she says; that has always been the aim, though that isn't accounting for whenever someone, or something, from the other side really attempts to push in. Either way, they've done what they could - there are other problems to tackle, like whatever surfaced from the mysterious underground that John mentioned.

How is my band-aid holding up?

"It held," the witch replies. "It took a few weeks to research for and then build a stronger cage, I figured it wasn't advisable to just let it stay there without doing something, so we repaired the seal before anything could happen to your band-aid. It shouldn't be so easy to crack into now. Learning experience and all of that, right?"

—-

"Don't know as you've noticed," John says, with a flicked glance at Hell's Kitchen, and by extension 'the entire rest of the mortal realms,' "But this entire plane of existence is band-aids. It's band-aids all the way down." And John, who is not, and never has been, much for defending the celestial circus within which he lives, finds himself with his eyes narrowing, coming to its defense, which does nothing for his mood: "It's hanging together so far."

The reason for this involuntary reaction is shortly illuminated by reference to the thing in Zatanna's soul. The source, as it were, of that icy internal reaction that John's keeping locked behind his more usual dry smile — a thing that gains a definite edge the moment it becomes an open subject of conversation.

"You know, I'm glad you brought that up," says the Englishman, in a cheery tone of voice that meshes well with what he's saying out loud, and is at all odds with the seething displeasure under the surface. "Because imagine, for a moment, my bloody surprise on finding some bloke had slapped some bit of green mung on my bird's soul when I wasn't looking? And it's still there. Been months. Been…" He ticks his eyes upward. "Got to be close to a year now, actually, hasn't it? Seems well past time for it to go."

—-

Vivid green eyes stare past Constantine and Zatanna as the latter exchanges glances with the former; a fine brow arches just a bit in critical assessment. Lips purse, just faintly.

"Of course. Family often is, isn't it?"

Complicated.

With that, Loki, God of Magic, laces his fingers together and stretches his arms out in front of him as if to limber up. A roll of the neck, a shrug of the shoulders, and the would-be Asgardian prince is leisurely strolling his way back down to the ground. "But unfortunately, we don't often get to choose the people and things we're connected to in life. The threads of fate are a capricious thing. Believe me, I know."

He is still walking, right past Constantine, as he — him, of all people — comes to the defense of mortal creation. A single brow hefts up as Loki passes by, as if to silently say 'really?'

One can practically hear the unuttered clucking of tongues.

"I've always thought of it rather like an unwanted holiday outfit you get from a doddering old relative," comes Loki's reply only after he has passed them by. He presses a lone finger against the empty air around him. It ripples, like a lake disturbed. "Like one of your, what is it, 'Christ's Mass' sweaters? It doesn't exactly fit your size, and the material chafes terribly uncomfortably, and the threads are loose every which way and liable to come apart at any moment, but of course you wear it anyway in the moment, out of love." A second passes by.

"Of course, the principle's the same. And besides…

"… the more pertinent point is the 'so far,' isn't it?"

Emerald snakes its way across slender fingers as Loki speaks. And he helps, of course, as Constantine digs that much deeper into the problem of the band-aid — by reinforcing that meta-patchwork in the fabric of existence with a shining green thread, reinforcing and strengthening what was already there in subtle and understated ways to the soothing tunes of Constantine's saccharine concerns.

Because imagine, for a moment, my bloody surprise on finding some bloke had slapped some bit of green mung on my bird's soul when I wasn't looking?

"Your gratitude for my mung is duly accepted. You're welcome!"

Because of course he just decided Constantine was just gushing appreciation.

"I must say, though, this is a rather odd way to express thanks for ensuring crazed villains did not turn poor Lady Zatara here into a highly-effected weapon of mass destruction! Is this what's known as that old British charm? I think I could grow to enjoy it. Like Stockholm's!" Green sparks at his fingertips, gradually fading away as he finishes his work. He tilts his head back, towards them both. His expression is nothing less than entirely relatable. Sympathetic, even. "But your suspicious surplus of sweetness aside, I can understand the concern. You, Miss Zatanna, have quite a wellspring of power at your fingertips, and such things are liable to cause just as many problems as they can fix, especially when untamed. But now that I'm well and truly certain that you are not liable to explode anew…" Hand to his heart, he turns to them. Offer outstretched. "… I would be more than happy to take care of that little band-aid of yours here and now, if it'd please you."

—-

There had been a discussion the first time John caught a whiff of the green shackles around the overfilled well of magic within her, so when the Englishman leans into his menacing good cheer, it would be a lie to say that Zatanna hadn't expected this - that not only would be be unhappy when he finally met the guy, but things will get complicated in a hurry if not just because - by all accounting - the God of Mischief likes to escalate. And so when he says what he does:

Like Stockholm's!

…it takes everything in her power not to palm her face.

Not to say she doesn't look somewhat guilty; she does, if not just because she feels partially responsible for what happened, nevermind that nothing could be further from the truth, but guilt doesn't have to be rational. In the end of the day, something that belongs to another person, in the very fabric and stuff that makes her her, is wedged inside her, and she knows that if their positions were reversed, she wouldn't be acting any more differently than John.

She's about to speak - perhaps to help diffuse the situation, but the man directs his attention to her and scratches the surface of the reasons why she has looked at herself with so much trepidation for so long. "I— "

I would be more than happy to take care of tha little band-aid of yours here and now, if it'd please you.

Surprise ripples over her pale mien. "…really?" she wonders. "I mean…it's that easy?" She only half-recalls what happened when the Scarlet Witch had ensnared her, could only dimply remember hearing a confrontation between Loki and Wanda Maximoff before the well's volatility started to subside.

—-

At least in this moment, none of John's restless irritation seems to be pointed at Zatanna at all. Which isn't to say it won't ever be again — he is what he is — but, with the actual origin point of his unease standing there in front of him, wearing fabulous, expensive-looking clothing and being simultaneously erudite and smug (all things that John, as a scruffy product of Liverpudlian poverty, mislikes intensely even on their own)…well. There's no need to grouse at the witch.

In his pockets, something jingles as John's hands tighten into themselves — change, or keys, or maybe something else, something awful, because why would John ever need change or keys? The angle of his jaw shifts, the only external sign of whatever tense maelstrom is twisting around his interior. Because the truth is this:

Loki cannot win, with John.

Oh, he can win in the sense of accomplishing whatever he's after, for a certainty; John's nickname may be 'Johnny Con-Job,' but he's mortal down to his bones. As tricksters go, they're playing in slightly different leagues (and that, too, has a lot to do with his obvious, bristling annoyance).

No, it's a different sort of winning that can't be done. The sort where John is angry because a shimmering green padlock on the soul of his woman still exists, but upon having the offer of removing it made, there's nothing even remotely like relief — just another sort of anger altogether. A worse sort, maybe, because this time it's suspicious, too.

He looks like he wants to say something. He doesn't. It costs him a great deal not to — his jaw sets, his shoulders hunch inward, his brows do that thing where they look like they want to be violent with other parts of his face — but he holds his tongue, and looks at Zee.

It's her soul, after all. Sure, his is inextricably tied to it to the point that her taco cravings often chase him out of bed at three in the morning to find a food truck, amongst other tragedies, but…still.

—-

Suspicion. Surprise. To wit, neither are really surprising, not when you've lived so long with a godly paradox of being the God of Lies, thus being so adept at lying everyone expects if of you.

Which doesn't make that slight, confused lift of Loki's brows particularly less authentic-looking.

"What? You don't believe me?"

Asks the God of Lies.

"Well, I suppose I can't blame you that."

An affable shrug follows in the wake of his considerate concession; Loki cannot win, and so he doesn't try, slipping into his role as comfortably as one might a pair of well-used sneakers worn down well past their point of use and yet unable to be replaced. "The truth is, this would be the perfect opportunity to leverage something more out of the situation, and normally I would do so unabashedly. After all, I have something of a backdoor into your existence, and I am a well-known black hat comparable to the vilest scum of the infernal filthpits of Reddit and so forth, as good Master Constantine clearly sees."

Hands come up, as if exasperated, in a way that doesn't quite match the light playfulness of his smile. "But, the circumstances don't quite allow for any fun back and forth or negotiation, sadly. So, I can in fact remove my little band-aid from your soul, that easy. Unfortunately… it doesn't solve the underlying issue, does it?"

Silence follows in the wake of this question, as if designed to let them consider the question just long enough for the trickster to helpfully elaborate. "You, through no fault of your own, nearly caused as much devastation as whoever did all this-" demonstrative gesture goes here, "- to Humpty Dumpster." Is he just assuming that's the name of the neighborhood now-?? "If not moreso. Because someone realized the unfortunate reality of your situation. You are a walking dam, fit to burst. A band-aid all your own. You might have reinforced it, strengthened it, made it more difficult to reach…" A finger taps behind him. Against the thinned fabric of all that is. It warbles, tenuously.

"… but a band-aid is still a band-aid. A temporary fix to a larger problem. You have a tremendous gift that no one," subtly brief pause here, "has had the capacity to teach you to control. And terrible things are coming for us all that will be much more liable to corrupt and subvert than some rascally Red Riding Hood."

And here, he stops. He offers a sympathetic smile, etched impeccably all the way to his green stare. "Well, that's enough doom and gloom! I feel like a regular Eeyore. Shall we remove my little stopgap? It's quite simple to remove, like any band-aid. Just one good yank ought to do it."

—-

A hand reaches out to touch John's shoulder and gives it a squeeze, Zatanna flashing him a sympathetic and reassuring look. She gives him a small smile - it won't make him feel any better, but that doesn't mean that she would not try. It wouldn't be her if she didn't at least make the effort.

What? You don't believe me?

She gives the elegant and green-clad man (who looks so much like Tom Hiddleston it isn't even funny) a look after what she assumes is a rhetorical question, but one so made that she can't help but look slightly exasperated. Even without saying the word, Loki can clearly read it on her face: Really?

"You are," she tells him, in the end. "But I mean…word on the street has it that you like surprising people also, so…" She makes weighing gestures with her fingers. "I don't think it's any fun for you without a bit of a gamble involved. So okay, let's gamble." She slides her hands in her pockets. "What exactly are you proposing, since you've gotten up close and personal with my situation? Do you know anybody who has the capacity to teach me how to control what I've got?"

Her hand leaves John's shoulder, before taking several steps forward towards the Asgardian Eeyore. "Okay, rip off the band-aid." She pauses, and hesitation, for the first time, slips over her face. "Uh, I mean. That's just an analogy, right? It won't actually hurt like a ripped off bandage, yeah?"

—-

It bothers John not at all if Loki starts to call Hell's Kitchen 'Humpty Dumpster.' There's a not-insignificant part of the Englishman that takes exception to the name 'Hell's Kitchen' and its infinite hubris. The man has spent more time in Hell than anybody who isn't presently dead ever ought to have had to do.

Then again, 'taking exception to things' is another core character trait for John, and it's on fine display, presently. "An' your entire interest in the 'underlying issue' of 'tanna's soul is the danger it poses to the mortal spheres you've just finished comparing to an ill-fitting Christmas sweater, is it?" He inflects those words as a question, but they aren't. Everything about him in those moments screams you are full of every kind of shit — and at this point, in the wake of that well-aimed little barb concerning Zatanna's tutelage, he's no longer bothering to dress it up in kid gloves of wryness. There's nothing overtly infuriated about him, but his expression is flat, all pretense shed, in a way that it isn't, often.

Do you know anybody who has the capacity to help me control what I've got? Zatanna asks, and John's response won't surprise anyone: a snort, another tightening of the eyes. The rest of him is unusually motionless. "I'll just bet 'e has," he murmurs, a low and quiet remark that has a great deal in common with growling junkyard dogs.

—-

I'll just bet 'e h—

"Why me, of course!"

It's with an enthusiastic flourish that the God of Mischief gestures at himself, confirming the clearly cautiously optimistic snarl of John Constantine with nary an ounce of hesitation. As casually confident as if the answer were as plain as the nose on one's face.

"While I could certainly wax humble virtues right now, what would be the point? You have a powerful gift that you will either learn to control, or allow to control you, and times are swift approaching where the choice may yet be made for you. And at the wretched risk of tooting my own horn, there are none more uniquely suited to the task of tutoring you in the control of that gift than me. You said it yourself: thanks to the peculiar particulars of our situation, I have gotten up close and personal with your 'situation.'"

And so are placed the legendary air quotes, right… here.

"Plus, I'm really very good. Godly, you could say."

Be he ever so humble.

Zatanna advances; and every step she takes closer, emerald light begins to twine all the thicker betwixt the trickster's fingers. "Of course, as Master John's astute stink-eyeing is so subtly attempting to imply, though I have been attempting to quite steadfastly polish my tarnished reputation of late, this is not quite an act of selfless charity. But we can discuss all that tedium in a moment. For now…"

And jade sorcery coalesces, sprouting from middle and forefinger in the form of a simple key.

"… an act of selfless charity!"

That's just an analogy, right? It won't actually hurt like a ripped off bandage, yeah?

"My goodness, Lady Zee, you really need to bone up on how analogies work. They're not very effective if they're not very apt, are they? But worry not!"

And then he just stuffs that glowing key straight into Zatanna's forehead.

"Any agonizing torment should be blissfully temporary. It'll be fine. Probably."

And past skin and flesh and skull and gray matter it passes, past firing neurons and active synapses, past the tiny atoms that make up the trillions of little parts that is Zatanna Zatara… to get to the very core of her. Past the physical. Past the real.

To the irrational. Where the magic happens.

It should be made quite perfectly clear that Loki Laufeyson is a liar, with a mild penchant for mischief. And thus what happens next is not painful. What it might be, however, is strange. Strange, if only for the feeling of suddenly lacking something that has been riding by Zatanna's side, unseen and unspoken, for over a year now, if not moreso. Like recognizing a toe for the loss of it, that key slides its way into a great, green padlock of security wrought purely by metaphor, turns its figurative latch…

… and with a metaphysical click, the subtle emerald that had laced itself through the band-aid on Zatanna's soul unwinds itself and snakes back to its source with an abruptness so sudden it might as well induce an existential whiplash for its spontaneous absence.

"Well? Are you dead?" wonders Loki, God of Mischief.

"Because that would be most disagreeable."

—-

At the end of the day, love him or hate him, Loki isn't wrong. Zatanna's skeptical expression bleeds away to something more neutral, though the outward air of her isn't hostile. Her silver link with John pulses with uncertainty and he, above all, would be intimate as to the reasons why. She has always been fearful of it, what is inside her and what it means for her and everyone else around her, and he has seen for himself just how dangerous it is for it to spill from her uncontrollably. While her foray into the battlefields of the self has given her more confidence in wielding her power, it has not led her to disengage the safety mechanisms her father or Loki have placed on her. So while she is now familiar with who she is, she is still at a loss as to what she is.

But experience has rendered her cautious, and he is the God of Mischief (and Lies). To rush headlong into what he is suggesting isn't just foolhardy, it's stupid.

"Could you give me time to think about it?" she asks, the words, despite herself (and John's growing displeasure), genuinely meant. "I mean, it's not like I don't know how to find you. I still have your card."

There will be a discussion with the Englishman, but that on its own is a testament as to how the last two years have changed their dealings with one another - there was a time when Zatanna would simply go off and do what she wants, confront who she pleases and in the end, it nearly destroyed them.

He talks faster than anyone she's ever encountered, and she's just getting the tail-end of his spiel - and the realization that it would probably hurt - when ice-blue eyes widen. "Wait— !"

…and the emerald key jams right into her forehead. For a moment the crystal clarity of those lightning-blue eyes goes blank, the very stuff of her propelled through the stars and the infinite, plunging into the churning seas of her soul. It freezes her in place and while she looks absent, there is no pain. And the strangeness is brief. Strange, but brief.

In her mind's eye, virid light spools into ribbons, retracting into the instrument he has slipped through her forehead, and with the turn of his wrist with the inaudible click that somehow reverberates through the rest of her inner cosmos, the key is pulled out and the unobtrusive presence that she has lived with for what feels like an eternity is simply…

…gone.

She rubberbands back into the conscious world, the only sign of it a slight lurching on her feet. A step or two has her stumbling back, her fingers lifting, belatedly, to her forehead.

"I…it's gone. It didn't hurt." Her eyes move over to the Englishman. "John?"

To check Loki's work.

—-

Could you give me time to think about it?

Eminently reasonable words that nevertheless produce a look from John — sidelong and silent — that wouldn't be out of place if he'd just bitten into an apple, and found the core made of raw and bleeding meat: something not just unpleasant, but surprising and disconcerting, too.

It's on occasions like this one that the link he has with the Zatara witch is at its most dangerous. In any other relationship, holding his tongue in this moment might be enough, whether out of a sense of respect or self-preservation or some desire to maintain the peace. The astral link ensures that it accomplishes nothing more than signaling his attempt to do those things outwardly: the disapproval in him boils up out of some darker fissure in his character whether he wants it to or not, and the surplus floods the line, a thing that seems too potent for the mere setting of his jaw it causes.

In his hunch-shouldered and taut silence he holds both his tongue and his ground with bloody-minded determination right up until the moment Zee says Wait-! and it becomes clear that Loki is not going to do any such thing.

God or no god, that's the moment John breaks his stillness. With no plan, surely: what does a mortal street mage do, improvised and unprepared, to contest the will of a god? But it's a long way from the first time John's done precisely that, and plan or no plan, he breaks forward, one hand extending, because Zatanna said wait-

Funny thing about having a tiny piece of someone else's soul bound to your own by mongrel magic that probably never should have been done in the first place: it does weird shit sometimes. Things like carrying sympathetic reverberations from across a fathomless ocean of Universal magic. For John, in every way mortal in spite of the limitless cheat codes he seems to have at his disposal, tremors sufficient to shake the Zatara heiress are enough to daze him, too, even on so small a scale. Her soul shudders as it's manipulated, and the small sequin stitched to his shakes the rest of its threadbare pennant relentlessly.

By the time that echo fades, it's over.

Maybe.

She looks to him for confirmation, and as he finishes scrubbing his face to collect himself because he can't scrub his own soul, he shoots her a flat look. "Far as I can tell." The words have a sardonic quality that seems to be implying something more than the words themselves can account for, but whatever that thing is, he's not explaining.

—-

The things one sees in the echoes of the soul, especially souls intertwined. Just like at the gala when he bore witness to that faraway connection, he sees it here once more in all the brevity of that slice of time. A shorter glimpse, but stronger, and growing with a reckless intensity before the aftershocks of his work ripple and catch it like one bowling pin toppling through another.

Loki, gentleman and as often lady as he is, doesn't remark on it. He simply catches his glimpse…

… and just like that, it's over. By the time both of them have refocused themselves and done a proverbial pat down on their souls, the Prince of Lies is making the most mild of adjustments to his tie, as if to make it a perfectly straightened counterpoint to the perfect mess that is Constantine('s apparel). Vivid green eyes look up, jade energies crackling the aftermath of their work along his fingertips in pleasantly whimsical sparks. He lifts a single brow.

Far as I can tell.

"Well, a more ringing endorsement I've never heard. I take it this means I can expect a thank you hug?" His smile, of course, is the radiant type, charmingly friendly as ever even if not quite blithely oblivious to the tensions that ring that simple assessment.

"Maybe another time, I suppose. Regardless!" The God of several varieties of things thusly turns his attention back to Zatanna in the dip of a single, casual bow. "Your cage is now your own, Lady Zee. And you may take as much time as you need to think through my offer. I might have had to write you off as a lost cause if you didn't! A clever sort knows when to apply caution just as much as they do courage."

And with that (free, he might add!) lesson delivered, Loki laces his fingers, stretches his arms in front of him… and then tilts himself towards his left on the pivot of one polished heel, away from the wreckage and the patched reality before him. "Well then! I believe that hard work has earned me a most mighty congress of breakfast meats. I'd extend an invitation, but it feels as if you two have much to talk about. So, perhaps, I'll simply leave you with this bit of wisdom, a sage once spoke upon the winds so many moons ago:

"You will never be able to say hello to you, Lady Zee, until you achieve the glories of the overloaded red line; and you shall never truly know what you can do, until you are able to truly get as high as you can go."

Is there no end to the inspiration of sages past??

"Well then. Lady Zee, Master John. The tacky thread count of our existence is ever-thinning towards perilously bargain bin levels, so I will leave you to your work. I do hope you have a most spirited evening. Fare you well!"

And with such wise words imparted, he'll turn to leave unless halted. To leave them to their freshly-earned privacy.

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